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I'm starting a new game tomorrow and I'd like to throw something unusual at my players. The setting is a typical Tolkien-esque setting and the players are aware of that..but I'd like to introduce clockwork and steam as an unknown and mysterious thing they would discover.

I don't want to ask them: "Hey, you guys are cool if the campaign leads to a clockworks and steam-powered soldier invasion?". I want this to be a surprise and also I want to avoid metagaming.

The plan is to make them visit a very old dungeon in which there would be clockwork soldiers. I would make them pass as strange armors standing in rows.

I don't want to ask them if clockwork soldiers themed campaign is ok with them for the following reasons:

  1. They would be expecting the "armors" to be clockwork soldiers and prep for it.
  2. It wouldn't be strange or mysterious when they find about it
  3. They could prepare for it or get paranoid about every piece of metal in the dungeon.

The thing is..I know from experience that having a certain genre or setting imposed on me as a surprise often turned out to be bad. I don't like playing a game when suddenly the GM hints that we actually are in The Matrix...or that the game will be about an undead invasion and I didn't want to play "that kind of game". I don't know if clockwork and steampunk will pass as interesting plot twist or uninteresting attempt to spice up a setting.

So my question is: How can I introduce twists to the setting without asking them in advance if what I plan fits in their liking and taste.

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Great, enjoy. And what is your question here? – mxyzplk Mar 26 '13 at 1:16
I agree, there isn't really any obvious question here aside from "do you guys think this is a good idea?" Personally, I'd just do it and try to ask after the session if it was a good idea. If so, great. If not, eh, one session that was weird, no huge loss. – KRyan Mar 26 '13 at 1:17
Still not sure you're asking a valid question. How do you surprise them without asking them in advance? That's the definition of surprise, you do it without asking in advance. – mxyzplk Mar 26 '13 at 1:20
Incidentally, most genre-savy players would look at a row of carefully described armours with considerable suspicion. Their only surprise would be the animation from clockwork rather than magic. – Duncan Matheson Mar 26 '13 at 21:35
Not if you describe the place as a storage. It's all in the description and context­. – MrJinPengyou Mar 27 '13 at 12:10
up vote 33 down vote accepted

Run that dungeon with the weird clockwork. If the players like it, treat that dungeon as foreshadowing and continue with your clockwork invasion theme plans. If they don't like it, relegate that dungeon to a one-time "weird old place" and throw that theme away.

Trying subtle things and observing how the players react is a valuable skill for a GM who wants to tailor the game to the players without asking straight-out for their collaboration.

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Try it out in-game and if it doesn't work then have a back-up plan for the campaign. I grapple with the same ideas as you - inevitable players will implement that knowledge and it would be so worthwhile to surprise them.

I'm a fan of the crazy guy in the bar who talks about his days of spelunking or out at war and encountering what I'd ask my players about. Here that'd be clockwork. A game I've run introduced gunpowder to the world through warfare, as well as large scale siege weapons. Just be sure when you've got rumors hinting about steam-punk and clockwork that you have some outlandish rumors alongside so that your keen players don't catch on so quick.

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+1 for the first sentence alone. This is the best way to do it. – Sardathrion Mar 26 '13 at 7:42

Whatever you do, avoid making your players feel cheated.

If you're playing a game where planning an 'optimised build' is important, don't let the new elements render existing build less useful, or introduce new content that only works with builds they didn't take.

Let your players play with the new toys. If Dark Lord George's clockwork soldiers wield steam-propelled circular saws, don't have them run out of fuel the moment the players get their hands on them - let them play, and experiment with new power sources, and use them to fashion dungeon doors into makeshift toboggans if they want to. Otherwise, they'll feel like you're abusing rule zero in order to make your setting interesting at their expense - and you will be.

Finally, let the presence of the new steampunk stuff have an impact on the game world. After all, a completely revolutionary new technology is called that for a reason - if introducing the science of clockwork to Duke Goodguy's wizard doesn't allow him to develop a convenient mountain-climbing machine within a year, he's clearly being overpaid. More importantly, if players can't depend on their more interesting actions having logical consequences, they'll feel like they're being railroaded.

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+1 for "let them play with it". I remember a game of Fading Suns where all manner of ancient high-powered energy weapons kept going dead in our hands after one shot, if at all. Very frustrating, and makes the world feel less coherent and more stacked personally against the players. – lisardggY Mar 26 '13 at 11:03
@lisardggY: you're in pretty much the same position as your grandparents when you hand them something to look at on your phone and it "goes weird" within seconds ;-) No offence intended to your grandparents, maybe they're great with technology, but it's not entirely unjustified to assume that if you hand a phaser to a gorilla (offence is intended to your PC) it will probably break it fairly quickly! – Steve Jessop Dec 6 '14 at 23:06

Ask the players if they're okay with a twist to the theme, but don't say what kind of twist it will be. Since you can't tell them what you will be changing, tell them what you won't be changing.

Start off by making a list of the themes of the setting your players are expecting. (I'd link to tvtropes, but since you probably have a life, I'll just link to the tropes we're using in our current campaign.)

See which of those tropes will withstand the twist you're planning. Any that won't make it get removed from the list.

Show the reduced list to the players, explaining that these are the themes for the setting, and that anything not on the list is subject to change.

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+1 since the warning should encourage players to make builds easier to keep from breaking due to the twist. – Dan Neely Mar 26 '13 at 21:15
Ps. One way in which this could backfire is that, when you eventually introduce your clockwork soldiers, the players might say: "That's the twist? I expected something a lot stranger." So, you know... just be prepared to come up with more twists if needed. – Ilmari Karonen Mar 27 '13 at 0:55

In my experience players are fairly good about twists in the plot as long as they follow certain guidelines. The players don't want everything to be predictable. They want the mechanics of the world to be predictable.

  1. As stated above don't make changes that make plays useless.

  2. Make any new things fit in a comprable power lever. For instance don't make a mechanical gun that is easy for low level enemies to obtain but deals damage like on level with high level spells, especially if it also doesn't have any of the balancing factors such as being subjecting to spell resistance etc. I guess what I am really saying is don't let your introductions unbalance the game.

  3. Make them changes mechanically similar enough to what already exists that players who don't really like it can simply ignore it. For instance your clockwork soldiers could work similar enough to a golem of some kind that the description is novelty contributing to the setting but the players don't feel like they are learning an new game system. No one really cares if the golem they faced is powered by magic or is steam driven. They would expect that a steam powered golem might run out of fuel unless the steam is magically powered.

  4. Give the players some hint of the changes though in game play where they are in great danger from them before having them meet the new stuff as and encounter to be overcome. Such as the story teller in the tavern, or an ally who has captured a small device, etc.

  5. Don't make the story so much about the new stuff that they never see any of the things they are use to seeing. If every enemy is clockwork they will dislike it just as much as if every enemy as a lich, mindflayer, or any other villain being overplayed.

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It's not quite true that invalidating their character build is the usual reason for players objecting. More accurately, it's invalidating what the players care about. I've run a twist that didn't impact mechanics at all, but removed the PCs from the city where all their contacts and connections were, and it killed the game; but then it wasn't a game about builds, it was a game about who you know. – SevenSidedDie Mar 26 '13 at 19:25

Don't be so specific. Tell them the world is based in Middle Earth, but you're going to make some changes along the way. Basically all you need to do is avoid a bait and switch. They can't start out in Tolkien's world and have the world change on them. That makes them feel cheated. Starting in a world that looks like, but won't always be Middle Earth should alleviate that.

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